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Happy Days: Siobhán McSweeney brings all her intuition to Beckett’s work of tragicomic genius

Theatre: As Winnie, the actor makes the location and circumstance of Happy Days seem normal, although sorrow keeps breaking in

Happy Days

Cork Opera House

Happy Days, which was first performed in 1961, spans the generations as a triumph of Samuel Beckett’s tragicomic genius. Heroines of theatre from Peggy Ashcroft to Billie Whitelaw and Fiona Shaw have clutched this dangerous nettle. In this Landmark Productions staging, presented by Cork Midsummer Festival and Cork Opera House, Siobhán McSweeney’s intuition makes the location and circumstance of Happy Days seem normal, although sorrow keeps breaking in.

A waste of sand or soil has built up around Winnie, who, as the play opens, is woken by a bell whose clamour promises only another day, a day that Winnie declares is going to be happy. Immobilised from the waist down, she draws emotional sustenance from her few belongings – all, like herself, her hidden husband, Willie, and even her memories, past their prime.

She fondles her toothbrush, her hair, her mirror, her bag. And, just as we wonder what woman doesn’t have that kind of holdall, she withdraws her revolver. Interrupted only by her largely unanswered calls to Willie, her conversation is with herself. She remembers the sweet old style; she wonders if she has ever been not so much loved as lovable; she half-remembers phrases, poems, an old melody.

When Willie emerges he is in beachwear and reading a newspaper with his back to Winnie. As he disappears again Winnie’s maternal concern for him carries them both through a life shared but, perhaps like all married lives, lived differently. They age; words fail; Winnie’s hair is grey and dishevelled although she still wears her little optimistic fascinator. The mound has reached her chin; where, she wonders, are her breasts?


While Willie crawls unavailingly towards her like a crippled Dickensian undertaker, in top hat and highly polished shoes, Winnie rediscovers her song – from, wouldn’t you know it, The Merry Widow: “Says for you it’s true, it’s true, you love me so.”

Radiant even from a distance, McSweeney’s smile illuminates this poignant completion of a work so incisive and yet cryptic that her Winnie, matched by Howard Teale’s Willie, is as faithful as possible to this enormous metaphor.

Lit by Paul Keogan, the setting by Jamie Vartan excavates other resonances, with a brilliant sky brightening and dimming over dunes and structures that suggest an abandoned bunker. The direction, by Caitríona McLaughlin, might have employed more pace and evoked stronger tonal distinction. Sinéad Diskin’s sound, more atmosphere than noise, seems to capture Beckett’s own implied irresolution.

Continues at Cork Opera House at 2.30pm and 7.30pm today, as part of Cork Midsummer Festival; then runs at 3Olympia Theatre, Dublin, from Wednesday, June 21st, until Saturday, June 24th

Mary Leland

Mary Leland is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture